I entreated, “I would give anything to be with a girl like you.”
Jo was so smart, so beautiful, so lovely. She laughed as she leaned forward to kiss me.
“You are with me.”
My heart stopped beating for that split second, but deep down, I knew I was not.
It was the night before Jo was leaving for Broken Hill to start her teaching career. Broken Hill was 1,154 kilometres away. It was also the last night before my final university exam in Geography. I can still remember how surprised Jo was to see me standing there, wet from the rain, after I knocked on the front door of her little bedsit in a leafy, North Sydney avenue.
“What are you doing here?”
“I can’t study anymore. Nothing more can possibly make any difference now. Besides, I’m running at a “Credit+” pass, so I’d have to really bomb out to fail the course. We only have a few hours tomorrow before you leave.”
Jo was almost two years older and a year ahead of me in our studies at the University of Sydney. I had been going out with her for only a few weeks. I do not know why she went out with me; she was way out of my league. Perhaps Jo just wanted one last, student fling before she left her university life for good and I was simply at the right place, at the right time. She was so far out of my league that I always felt frustratingly self-conscious when I was around her. I think Jo saw only rare glimpses of the genuine me; the times I let my guard down. Ridiculously, for most of the time, I tried to disguise my lack of confidence by acting super cool and distant, or something. She told me that she had a dream of getting married and having children one day, but had made it pretty clear that it would not happen anytime soon. She told my friends that she thought I was “a nice guy.”
Jo came from a wheat/sheep farm in a one-horse town in the Riverina agricultural region of south-western New South Wales. I went to that town with her for a weekend one time, to attend a wedding. Her mother was lovely and welcoming, but her father hated me at first sight. It might have been my long hair or the fancy leather boots I was wearing, my unusual name or just the fact that I was with his daughter and probably up to no good, back in Sydney. More than likely, it was all of the above.
I was introduced to this huge bear of a man in loose fitting, dusty, King Gee work-clothes, brown leather work boots and a battered, old Akubra hat. He offered his hand for a handshake. Unfortunately, in my nervous enthusiasm, I slightly miscued and scratched his hand with the long fingernails I was growing for finger-picking my guitar. Jo’s father looked at his hand for a few seconds, then slowly raised his eyes back to me, contempt written all over his face. Not a good start. I was so nervous after that, I mumbled something unintelligible about playing guitar and needing longer fingernails. Jo’s father cocked his head to one side, screwed up his face irritably and yelled,
Jo came to my rescue and interpreted what I was trying to say to her father into comprehensible English. The big ox of a farmer just walked away, shaking his head. It was embarrassing. It also did not help my anxiety level that other members of the family considered this a particularly amusing scene. These onlookers included Jo’s three, large, powerful looking brothers, all of whom towered over me in height and who looked like chips off the old block, battered old Akubras and all. I heard muffled chuckles. Jo was very supportive, but I thought I detected a wry smile trying to break out across her tightened lips.
The next morning, I was woken at the crack of dawn by a cacophony of animal and bird noises. Pet peacocks were screeching, horses neighing, sheep bleating, birds chirping and so on. It was the first time staying out on a farm in the countryside for this city boy. I remember thinking, who said that the country was all about peace and quiet? I was too frightened to get out of bed in case I ran into Attila the Hun, so I just lay there in bed until Jo mercifully came in, gave me a cuddle and kissed me good morning. Guess who was glaring at us from the doorway!
Later that afternoon, we all showered and put on our wedding clothes. We left in a convoy of three identical, beige, Holden Kingswood cars; Jo and I with her mum and dad in the lead car. This was my chance to be useful, so I jumped out of the car at every farm gate between paddocks on the way out, probably just a little too enthusiastically. Some of the chain latches were tight and took a bit too long to unhook, for a city boy not used to that sort of thing. I could not help wondering what the cantankerous farmer was saying about me in the car while I was struggling with the gates. Someone in the last car would shut the gate after the convoy passed through.
The wedding reception was a hoot. It was at the town hall which had a framed picture of the “Queen of England and Australia” on the front wall above the stage. Right beside the portrait of the Queen, in an identical type and size of frame, was a photograph of Evonne Goolagong, the world famous tennis player who twice won Wimbledon and who originated from the same town. The townspeople’s respect and pride were in equal measure! The people were friendly, the band was corny, the beer flowed freely and I successfully managed to avoid Jo’s father all night long.
The end of that night came too soon. At about one o’clock in the morning, mum and dad, along with Jo and myself, piled into the Kingswood and bumped our way along the dirt road home. Jo’s brothers stayed on at the reception. I remember thinking that Jo’s father was a little too drunk to drive. No sooner did we arrive at the main gate to the farm, when the farmer blurted out,
“Shit! Someone left the gate open and the horses are in the crop!”
I panicked for a moment before I remembered that I was only responsible for opening the gates, not shuting them. You could see this thought ticking over in the big farmer’s head too, as he spun around and glared at me sitting in the back seat hyperventilating.
“We’ll drop the women off at the house and then get the horses out of the paddock.”
Oh no! I realised what that meant. I would be in the car all alone with this guy. Worse still, when we got to the horses, he might expect me to know what to do with them. The nearest to a horse I had been at that stage was on a merry-go-round at Luna Park – and that was some time ago. What’s more, I had a strong suspicion that this was not going to be quite as merry.
The women were dropped off and Jo’s father ordered me into the front seat.
“Keep an eye out and yer wits about ya.”
We sped along the dirt tracks at breakneck speed beside the vast swathes of golden wheat, in what there was of the meagre moonlight; bouncing up and down so much that I regularly hit my head on the car roof. I think the big man was enjoying that part. Suddenly, we saw the horses and they saw us. Off we went in another direction, bumping and bouncing along and in what seemed to be very little control. The horses bolted suddenly in yet another direction and the farmer swung the car around so sharply that I thought we might roll over. We rapidly picked up speed and raced along the track, accelerating faster and faster. Jo’s father was watching the horses out of the side window, but by some stroke of pure luck, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and watching the ground in front of us. I screamed out,
A huge, Eastern Grey kangaroo was standing in the middle of the track, blinded and mesmerised by the oncoming headlights of our vehicle. The kangaroo was about seven feet tall, standing up on his back legs and a massive lump of tight, marsupial muscle. Jo’s father slammed on the brakes. We stopped just in time.The vehicle stopped close enough to the big roo to give him a gentle, little nudge with the front bumper of the car. The big fella blinked, shook his head, then hopped away into the night – a very close call for him and for us.
The kangaroo was an impressively big male. Who knows what would have happened, had we hit him at full speed. There was every chance that the farmer and I could have slammed our heads into the dashboard or that the Eastern Grey could have come through the windscreen. Even if we were lucky enough to escape injury, there would have been a tremendous amount of damage done to the car.
We both stared straight ahead; struck dumb, mouths agape. Then, at exactly the same instant, both of us spun our heads around and looked in shock into each other’s eyes.
Luckily for us, the horses were as frightened of Jo’s father as I was, so they returned into their paddock by themselves. I shut the gate behind them. We drove back to the house in stunned silence. As I got out of the car, I heard a mumbled:
“Thanks for yer help.”
“That’s okay. Thanks.”
The women had tea and cake ready for us when we returned to the house. I felt pretty good when the magnanimous farmer told the story of how lucky he was that I was with him in the car and how lucky it was that I was “on the ball.” Jo was well pleased as well.
I can laugh about it now, but I will never forget the desperate distress I felt after seeing Jo off at Central Railway Station, on her way to her new life in Broken Hill. We had only been together for a short time, but this was a big one, and I was totally smitten. It was not just mental anguish that I felt, but tangible, physical pain that started as a headache and extended down into the back of my throat, deep into my chest and ended further down into the pit of my stomach. I think the only part of me that was not aching were my legs, which was just as well as I had to try and get home somehow or other. We had just spent a wonderful last day walking around the Rocks area, near the Sydney Harbour Bridge, visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales at the Domain and had a takeaway picnic in the Botanic Gardens which overlooked the Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. It was a particularly beautiful, sunny, summery day. Just like the Lou Reed song, it was “Just a Perfect Day.”
I never saw or contacted Jo again. I knew that she did not feel the same way as I did and so I thought that a clean break would be the least painful strategy to take.
I did well in my Geography exam, finishing in the top ten of my entire year cohort. Consequently, I was offered the opportunity to study for the honours degree.
Many years later, a tragic postscript was written to this story. I was a school principal on my way to a conference in the Riverina and found myself passing through the very same one-horse town that Jo was from. I had some time to spare and so I stopped and had a beer at the pub, just for the sake of nostalgia. Naturally, I asked about the farming family that I had stayed with all those years ago. The barmaid told me that both the farmer and his wife had died in a car accident some time ago. The entire town had gone into mourning for months after it happened. The couple were returning home late one night from a wedding reception in town.